Even as the Test cricket season draws to a close, South Africa had expected they would be raising a toast to their home Test series successes as a boost to their World Cup preparations. However, the stunning defeat to Sri Lanka has now firmly placed doubts in their mind not only about the World Cup but also, about their Test future.
Sri Lanka were expected to be easy game. There was not to be much resistance from the team that was coming to South Africa after being routed in Australia and New Zealand and before that at home by England. South Africa, with one eye on the ICC Cricket World Cup coming up in June in England, did not think they would have someone nipping at their feet.
Instead Durban proved to be at first, a nagging passage of play with the last wicket partnership for Sri Lanka delaying what seemed like the inevitable. With nearly eighty runs to get and a disastrous season behind them off and on the field, Sri Lanka were a ticking bomb, or so the cricket world, including South Africa thought. But South Africa’s fierce pace attack was treated confusingly at times, with reverence and then indifference. The plan worked. Sri Lanka pulled off the unthinkable.
With just the two Test series, South Africa found themselves in an unusual scenario: win the Test in Port Elizabeth, draw the series. Their best case scenario. Could the seemingly buried Sri Lankan team do it twice in a row? Turned out, they could. And it has left South Africa in a fix. They now not only have to bolster their World Cup preparations for England but also, square off against questions they may not have immediate answers for, even if the examination is still a fair way away in September when they play their next Test series against India.
The series against Sri Lanka exposed what South Africa had been trying to cover and assuage for themselves. Under Ottis Gibson, the current coach, South Africa reverted to their age old tactics of pace only, no spin. Keshav Maharaj became an irregular fixture as the faster pitches proved an awkward proposition to South Africa’s own batsmen who struggled, Hashim Amla included as the barren of Test centurions shows. Dean Elgar admitted as much previously about compromises having to be made about batsmen contending with pitches that were prepared to undermine the opposition strengths. Modest batting totals were laudably defended by a formidable pace attack even as it changed faces depending on injury status.
What South Africa did not see coming was their careful, safe, almost defensive plans unraveling against an unexpected, till-then-beleaguered opponent. Armed with safe results, South Africa could have headed into the World Cup believing they were fine just as long they crossed the line. The bar was set low. The bar was subsequently breached and how!
Now age is being brought out onto the table. Hashim Amla is thirty-six, Faf du Plessis thirty-four. Those knocking on the door are far too embryonic to take on India or such is the contention. The balance has been skewed far too low in the absence of recent retirees such as Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. The bowlers can only do so much and under restrictive plans for a one trick pony.
Coach Ottis Gibson must now first contend with taking the team to the ICC Cricket World Cup to England in June without appearing to look light on experience. His tenure is up in July shortly thereafter and it will be interesting to see how South Africa approach what has been by the captain’s own admission ‘a huge dent’ to their confidence going forward. How much of this upset applecart has eaten into South Africa’s fragile build up to the World Cup remains to be seen. But the real test (pun intended) awaits them thereafter as well.